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7 Questions with Mark Sayer
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7 Questions with Mark Sayer
Name: Mark Sayer
Current title: Principal
Current organisation: The British Vietnamese International School, Hanoi (Vietnam)
Following a 6 year spell in business (Accountancy, Sales and Marketing, Product Development), Mark trained as a teacher working in well-known independent schools in the UK. Mark is the Founding Principal of the British Vietnamese International School, Hanoi. This school opened in 2013 and has enjoyed academic, reputational and commercial success in the burgeoning schools market in Hanoi.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
Plate spinning comes to mind, but I think the main thing is to make sure that there is alignment, as far as possible, between one's own priorities and those of (the majority of) staff whilst keeping the balance of commercial interests with the human element, being a large employer as we are.
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
My first school, in which I worked for 13 years, allowed me to grow enormously as a teacher and a leader. I worked up from newbie teacher to housemaster responsible for 55 adolescent boys. This was one of the highlights of my teaching career and launched my move into school leadership positions. My second school was also equally instructive, although for a different age group of students. The move therefore into this current school blended perfectly the experiences gathered in the first two. As Founding Principal, I moved from the UK to take up this position in Vietnam. It was a challenging and bracing time, engaging in a new culture and workplace, but it was possible to grow into the role, as the school grew organically year by year in student and staff numbers. The school has enjoyed over its 8 year history CAGR of 64%. Whilst we are pleased with this commercial growth, the personal growth of students and staff is significantly more important to me.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
My day often will start with a run or stretching before habitual morning coffee and off to school.
As for all, the regular review of the tasks and priorities of the day before lunch with colleagues to chat and continue the enjoyable but inexhaustible process of getting to know and nurture staff and students.
I enjoy learning the trumpet, something I took up 2 years ago and also attend (though more intermittently) art class. The day is usually wound down with a good dinner (and glass of red!) and conversation. Invariably the turning off of the light is preceded by at least half an hour of reading. Nothing better than at day's close, being able to clear one's mind of the bustle with immersion in a great book.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
An interesting question, and out of so many, I would have to say, walking the tightrope of knowing that when you trust people, they may let you down, and when you don't trust people, they may do you down. For me, it keeps situations more real and potentially prone to subtle shifts, requiring the fine adjustment of all the skills learnt through experience to guide the organisation intuitively, consistently, in an undefended way.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
Manual of the Warrior of Light - Paolo Coelho.
Though not exclusively a book about leadership, it is a fine book that addresses self awareness and recognition of personal (and potentially, therefore, professional) strengths. Overall, and as the title suggests, it is a book essentially about quiet courage. One hardly needs to explain how the development of skills in this area builds leadership capacity in the organisation and the individual, when applied consistently.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
I work consistently with the Competency-Responsibility- Accountability paradigm. With more than 60% of the school's staff being Vietnamese, their experiences of professional progress have largely been shaped by working in our school over the past 8 years. Using a coaching and mentoring approach, and trusting staff into hitherto unfamiliar responsibility-taking has been very rewarding for me and I believe for them. With responsibility comes the flip side of accountability and when adopted in a spirit of openness and vulnerability, it has led to enormous growth, and thereby stability for the organisation as a whole. There is systematic task alignment and a quiet pervasive sense of purpose. We want our staff to love coming to work; accordingly, there is a sense of fun but seriousness about the task in hand - what could be more important than all joining together in educating the young.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
There are, honestly, so many. Education is an intensely human and relational business to be in. Keeping all students at the focal point of thinking, planning and executing ideas is key. A school building without students is - I once heard said - just a glorified rain shelter. Children make schools (with, of course, a big dollop of loving assistance from high quality staff). When this is the focus, what you give out comes back in spades. It is why teachers can often end up 30 years in the job and still as fresh and enthusiastic for the task as they were on the first day - or maybe I am just speaking for myself.